Royals making the extraordinary routine, riding improbable playoff run
KANSAS CITY — Even now that everyone is talking about the Royals, there is still one of their regulars who attracts little attention. Last December, the Royals signed 32-year-old Omar Infante to a four-year, $30 million contract with the idea that he would stabilize a position in second base that has long been in flux for them. He did just that during the regular season, but little more, batting .252 with six home runs and 66 RBI, and playing solid, if unspectacular, defense.
In the wake of all that happened on Wednesday afternoon in Kansas City — a 2-1 Game 4 win over the Orioles that gave the Royals an ALCS sweep and sent them to their first World Series appearance since 1985, prompting a raucous celebration both in the clubhouse and on the field in front of delirious fans who had been waiting 29 years for this and were in no rush to leave — Infante's contribution will be largely forgotten. But it was significant, and it came during the first at-bat of the game.
Nick Markakis, the Orioles' leadoff man, hit Royals starter Jason Vargas' second pitch sharply on the ground, just to the right of second base. It was the type of ball that can often mean trouble, one that many big league second basemen might allow to skip underneath their gloves, or simply knock down. Infante did neither of those things. He raced to his right. He backhanded the ball cleanly. Then, all in one motion, he twisted his trunk and perfectly sidearmed a fadeaway lob in the direction of first base that beat Markakis there by a step.
Vargas pointed at Infante. Infante tipped his cap. Wonderful, the Orioles must have been thinking. This again. It was, in its way, an extraordinary play. For the Royals during this postseason, to the frustration of their opponents, the extraordinary has become routine.
"When these games are as tight as they are," Royals manager Ned Yost would say, putting himself in the position of his opponents, "you just feel like you're never going to get a break, because our defensive guys are absolutely everywhere. It's a bit deflating."
Minutes later, in the bottom of first, the Royals deflated the Orioles even more. Alcides Escobar led off by hitting a chopper that bounced in front of the plate and over the head of Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez before landing behind him and then caroming off the second base bag to secure an infield single. Gonzalez's next pitch struck Nori Aoki in his right leg to give the Royals men on first and second with no outs. Up walked Lorenzo Cain, with a chance to break the game, and the series, open.
Cain has been the Royals' hottest hitter — he entered Game 4 batting .750 in the ALCS, well on his way to winning the series' MVP award — and so, of course, he bunted. It appeared as if Yost, who earlier this postseason had been widely questioned for his propensity for sacrificing outs (criticism that had decreased as the Royals won and won some more), had sent in the order.
Yost, though, would say that Cain had acted on his own; so deeply, perhaps, has the manager's philosophy permeated his lineup. In any event, the runners advanced to second and third, now with one out. The next batter, Eric Hosmer, hit a grounder to first — a sure out at home, it seemed, and potentially a double play — but Steve Pearce's throw skipped away from catcher Caleb Joseph, who perhaps rushed due to the approaching Escobar's speed. Escobar was safe, and so was Aoki following behind him. The Royals had a 2-0 lead, and it seemed as if it would be all they would need.
It seemed that way because the Royals have come to expect plays such as the one Alex Gordon made in the top of the fifth. Orioles third baseman Ryan Flaherty had homered off Vargas in the third, to make the score 2-1, and that is where it stood when shortstop J.J. Hardy led off the inning. Hardy crushed Vargas' fourth pitch on a line to deep left. It was a shot that would have sailed over the fence in some ballparks and would have banged off it in almost every other for a leadoff double. Leftfield in most ballparks, though, is not patrolled by Gordon, the winner of three straight Gold Gloves.
Gordon turned and broke straight back. He reached a speed of 16.7 miles per hour, according to MLB's new Statcast system. As he made his first step onto the warning track, he leapt in the air, extended his glove hand as far as he could and made the grab, a moment before crashing into the fence's chain links at full speed. Gordon lay on his back on the dirt, and waved his glove, that still held the ball, in the air.
Once again, for these Royals, the extraordinary had proven routine. But it had not done so by virtue of luck or fluke. Ever since Gordon became a leftfielder five years ago, he has played every batting practice live, whereas most outfielders spend those daily sessions chatting and lazily shagging flies. He has come to know every corner of leftfield at Kauffman Stadium and has internalized the precise angle he needs to take on every ball, exactly how much room he has before he might meet the fence.
The assembling of Royals' speedy, athletic team, too, was a long-term effort, requiring years of purpose-driven trades and drafting and free agent signings by their Dayton Moore-led front office. A club does not reach the point at which it can make the extraordinary look routine by happenstance. It reaches it by design.
Such a club can do things like turn around a season in which it was 48-50 as of July 21, more than three-fifths of the way through the schedule, and make the playoffs. It can do so despite ranking last in the majors in both homers and walks. It can do things like winning a record eight straight postseason games, four of them by a single run and three in extra innings.
And it can do things like reach a World Series — Game 1 will be in Kansas City on Tuesday night — for the first time in nearly three decades.
Said a security guard who was standing sentry outside the home clubhouse, as champagne fumes wafted through its door: "Next year" — as in, 'Wait 'til' — "is this year."